Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Bite-sized Beatles

These are all of The Beatles' studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

Please Please Me (1963)

This was it, then, The Beatles' very first album, and, while very much of its time, there is still some superb stuff on it. That said, I have always had a strange relationship with The Beatles. On the one hand, aged about five, I owned a plastic Beatles guitar (pictured), so they were the first musical memory I had, along with a vague knowledge of Elvis. A lot of their output was easy for a young child to sing - "she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" was probably the first I learnt, to the frustration of my parents, who hated me saying "yeah" instead of "yes". In the mid sixties, The Beatles were simply everywhere, even for five-six year old kids. On the other hand, as the years went by and I started to develop a musical taste, I found the edgy, bad boy, rebellious appeal of The Rolling Stones far more attractive. Even at eight or nine, I viewed The Beatles as "goody-goodies" (despite the flower power garb and later beards) and The Stones as the exact opposite. I knew which side my bread was buttered. Musically too, the riffy, bluesy decadence of The Stones' sound was what I wanted, not what I viewed as twee by 1968, as I did The Beatles' early pre-1965 output.

With The Beatles (1963)

Five cover versions in its fourteen tracks, this is an album of covers and short love songs, but its cultural effect was greater than the sum of its parts. For me, like Beatles For Sale it seems very much a Lennon album. He dominates the whole thing, let's be honest. Once more, for me, this is no work of genius - there was quite a lot of superior [pop music around at the time, let's be honest. It has a nice, clear sound to it, however. I'll give it that.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

The Beatles started to leave behind their rock 'n' roll and Motown covers for this soundtrack album to their first appealingly madcap romp of a film. Side one are all songs from the film and the second side were songs written for the film but not used. The emphasis is on pop pretty much all the way. It is an innocent, gently appealing album. This is a pleasant, inoffensive album, but beneath the tuneful geniality there are several notes of mournful sadness. These would come to be expressed increasingly over the next few albums, particularly by Lennon. Although this album was mixed in stereo and remastered thus in 2009, this is one of those where I definitely prefer the mono (which is actually the case for all the early ones). The bassy thump of the mono version is awesome.

Beatles For Sale (1964)

This often ignored and underrated album in The Beatles canon makes it all the more interesting to listen to as opposed to listening to Sgt Pepper again. In many ways it is a John Lennon album more than it is that of any of the others, particularly in its three opening tracks. Lennon's cynical approach to love and romance is becoming notably clear. The music has many country-ish rhythms and it is often described as The Beatles' "country album", although it contained a few rock'n'roll covers too. It was also supposed to herald the first signs of Lennon's "Dylan influence", although I think using a harmonica on a song is stretching the point a bit. Overall, though, it displays some mature pop songs, some lyrical cynicism, some acceptable covers and hints at a clear change in direction, attitude and ambience from the unbridled fun of 1963. It is a far more credible album than those that went before but it has to be said that it is still just a thirty minute collection of two minute 60s pop/country rock/rock'n'roll songs.

Help! (1965)

This album largely existed to serve as a "soundtrack" for the film of the same name. It was expanded to include both some new non soundtrack songs and a couple of cover versions thrown in for good measure. After the diversification of the end of the previous year's Beatles For Sale, where John Lennon's questioning, often cynical approach to relationships was given free reign there would have seemed to have been a conscious effort to "lighten things up" a little, mainly to suit the happy-go-lucky ambience of the film. The country rock vibes that were very present on Beatles For Sale are still there. Indeed, it would take until 1966's Revolver to see the demise of those completely.

Rubber Soul (1965)

After 1964’s Beatles For Sale had seen The Beatles move from rock n roll covers and lyrically twee pop songs to a more cynical, worldly-wise (particularly in the case of John Lennon’s lyrics) approach to songwriting, this 1965 was very much the transitional album in their career. The one that saw them complete the move from lovable teen pop group to a “serious” band. Bob Dylan was already 100% more serious and credible, so they had some work to do. Rubber Soul was said to be a “folk rock” album, an impression possibly nourished by the fact that the US release of the album contained tracks like I've Just Seen A Face and It's Only Love on it at the expense of Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, If I Needed Someone and What Goes On. I am not sure about that with regard to the better-known UK version. Yes, there was the acoustic Norwegian Wood, but that’s really as far as it went, in my opinion. It is still very recognisably The Beatles. They still ploughed their own unique furrow although it can't be denied that they were “borrowing” from other artists quite considerably on here.

Revolver (1966)

After three albums in Beatles For Sale, Help! and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rubber Soul that heavily featured "country rock", mid-paced laid back tunes, The Beatles produced their first really credible rock album. Bob Dylan had led the way, joined by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd among others in finding weird and wonderful ways of producing electrified music. The Beatles, by now wanting to experiment more and more after being somewhat conventional, let their creativity fly free, influenced now by LSD (acid) as opposed to the more mellow marijuana (pot) and they came up with music that was, in so many ways, totally unique. The previous three albums had also been notable for quite clearly being divided into Lennon songs, McCartney songs, a couple of Harrison songs and usually one or two "Ringo songs". This was now incredibly apparent on Revolver as each track was instantly recognisable by its vocalist/main contributor. The album's ambience literally changes from track to track. Rolling Stones albums contained obvious Jagger or Richards songs, but it was nowhere near as defined as this. The Beatles were almost unique in this regard, only Queen, in the 70s and 80s, with songs by Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor have come close to releasing albums full of such diverse material. This is also my favourite period for The Beatles' image - all those Byrds-esque sunglasses and Paisley shirts, together with the deliberately monochromic photography that accompanied the album's publicity and, of course, the album cover's black and white artwork. None of that Sgt. Pepper garish nonsense here or those post-Pepper shaggy beards. This was The Beatles at their coolest, for me.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

What do you say about an album that is regularly said to be the “greatest album of all time”? Not too much one can say, I guess, other than offer my probably irrelevant opinions. This album is certainly not a “rock” album, just as The Beatles were often not a rock band. This album is a collection of songs - some monumental, some silly, some pleasant, some average. It is a veritable chocolate box of styles too - rock, ballad, music hall, Indian, whimsy and ground-breaking sonic experimentation, the like of which had never been heard before. Like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, its effect culturally, on the music industry and, in this case, the world, was far, far greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it may not even be the best album by The Beatles, but it is, undoubtedly, the most important. It emphasises perfectly the schizophrenic nature of the group  - at times lovable lads your parents liked, at times hippy peaceniks and at others dangerous, demi-monde druggies. Pepper never knew what it was, despite McCartney’s irritating self-satisfaction about it. As Lennon said - “it worked because we said it worked”.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

After the world-conquering glory of Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles "went weird"  in the eyes of many (including The Queen, rumoured to have said they were "turning awfully funny") and released a perplexing, much-heralded and frankly odd and pretentious mini-film and accompanying EP of six tracks that was released as an album in the USA containing other single releases. This was eventually released as a UK album and has been available as such for many years now. So, it sort of is an album, but it isn't. At this point, however, The Beatles became bearded oddballs, so the release has considerable significance. 

The Beatles (The White Album) (1968)

So, on to the music on this bloated offering. Sure, there is some serious tosh on here - the waste of time that is Wild Honey Pie; the awful cod-Country and Western (with McCartney's embarrassing "country" accent) of Rocky Racoon; the obvious candidate in the utterly indulgent "proving a point" of Revolution 9 and the ones that almost qualify - Harrison's at times puerile Piggies; McCartney's irritatingly jaunty Martha My Dear and possibly also McCartney's effort to be Lennon in Why Don't We Do It In The Road. It seemed that in 1967-68 any light-hearted relatively unfinished studio doodlings could find their way on to an album and be hailed as a work of genius. I am sure Lennon said as much, didn't he? The Beach Boys' execrable Smiley Smile is a perfect example. Had these bands become too big for their boots and taking their assured market for granted? For every piece of gushing retrospective praise the album has garnered it must not be forgotten that at time memories were fresh of the band’s execrable Boxing Day movie disaster and a popularly held view was that the previously unassailable quartet had “got too big for their boots”. There was considerable evidence here. The album, in many ways, is a collection of solo numbers from each of the band members, with the others sitting in almost as session musicians. Quite why many of the songs are still credited to the songwriting “team” of Lennon-McCartney is becoming increasingly mystifying, (despite their honourable pre-fame agreement to always split the credits) as they are clearly the product of one or the other. What is notable, however, is that at times the songwriters came up with songs that were diametrically opposite to their perceived personae - Lennon writing a cloying lullaby in Good Night, (imagine the stick McCartney would have got for submitting a song like that), McCartney a Lennon-esque searing rocker in Helter Skelter and Harrison contributing a song with no Indian influence in the classic AOR of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It was an album that constantly gave out varying signals, perplexing at every turn. Maybe this was the result of the fragmented and genuinely tense sessions.In conclusion, like one of its worst tracks in Savoy Truffle, this album is like a box of chocolates. Some you prefer more than others. Some you avoid like the plague. 

Abbey Road (1969)

After the tense, fractious recording sessions that resulted in the rejection of the material subsequently used on the Let It Be album that would be released the following year, The Beatles decided to give it one more try and “get back to recording like they used to do” i.e. having a modicum of fun while doing it, as opposed to sniping, griping and often engaging in full-on confrontation. To a certain extent it worked, to another extent it didn’t. For example, John Lennon was said to have had no time for the “side two” pastiche of short, unfinished tracks running together that is now revered as a work of genius. He felt the songs were too short and incomplete and the whole effect was somewhat half baked. I have to say I agree with him. The reason it works in retrospect is because we are all used to those songs and how they run into each other and we know it back to front, therefore we like it. However, I have always been frustrated by the fact that the songs finish just as I am starting to enjoy them. I have to say that I would have preferred to have listened to all the songs in a much fuller longer version. Just imagine Mean Mr Mustard, Polythene Pam or, particularly, Sun King as fuller, lengthier songs. Why, they may have had a different bridge in the middle of them, or different verses, or guitar solos. An intriguing thought. Lennon also, apparently, wanted one side to be comprised of his own songs, and another side of McCartney’s songs. This is not surprising as so many of their albums had songs which were clearly being from one or other of the song writers, as opposed to dual efforts. The writing credit of “Lennon/McCartney” had long since ceased to be relevant, let’s be honest. On the other hand, though, he had also said he wanted the songs to be mixed around, “chocolate box” style, as they always had been, so he was a bit mixed up as to what he wanted. Then, of course, there was the constant presence of Yoko Ono in the studio....

Let It Be (1970)

Recorded in some fractious sessions in 1969 before (some of the tracks), and alongside the Abbey Road album sessions, this was actually, in all but its chronological release date, The Beatles' penultimate album and it is generally accepted by most as being a patchy one, nowhere near as good as its predecessors, The Beatles (The White Album) or Abbey Road. The negative feelings towards it do it a tiny bit of a disservice, however painful and chaotic its genesis. Most of the tracks were recorded for the album to be known as Get Back. That project got shelved and the better tracks that ensued subsequently became Abbey Road. Therefore the impression that these tracks were a bunch of rejected ones recorded by a group in its final, painful throes has followed it around for evermore. The opinion that you could almost feel the group breaking up while listening to this album is therefore a bit of a misnomer, because after recording and rejecting this batch of songs, they came up with the inspired Abbey Road material.

No comments:

Post a Comment